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May 17, 2013, 10:28 a.m.
AP Phone Records Subpoena

This Week in Review, Spy vs. Spy edition: Backlash against snooping by DOJ and Bloomberg

Plus: New developments in online video, The New Yorker’s Strongbox leak submission system, and the rest of the week’s future-of-news news.

AP Phone Records Subpoena

Outrage at seizure of AP records: The journalism and media world was collectively seething in a way you don’t often see this week after the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice had secretly obtained more than two months of phone records from more than 20 of its journalists’ work and home lines. The government hasn’t publicly said what they’re looking for, but it’s widely believed to be part of their investigation into the leaker behind the AP’s story last year about a foiled Yemeni bomb plot. The two best explanations of the situation come from Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon and Free Press’ Josh Stearns.

The DOJ has moved quickly to defend itself publicly (and to deflect some attention): It wrote a letter to the AP claiming it had the legal right to make the seizure, which drew an indignant response from the AP. Its head, Attorney General Eric Holder, held a press conference in which he emphasized the seriousness of the leak being investigated — and also told NPR he wasn’t sure how many times his department had seized such records of journalists. Holder also testified before Congress, and the White House pushed to revive a media shield bill that would require the government to notify news organizations before their records were seized, allowing them to fight it in court (with some exceptions).

New Yorker attorney Lynn Oberlander and Jeffrey Hermes of the Digital Media Law Project both reviewed the law behind the case, finding that while the DOJ might be able to argue for the legality of its actions, it probably violated its own (non-binding) policy for such seizures by not informing the AP beforehand or getting judicial review. This case, as Hermes argued, “called attention to the fact that the DOJ’s Media Policy has significant problems with transparency, accountability, and scope.” The Washington Post’s Timothy B. Lee marveled at the fact that the DOJ’s actions are probably completely legal, and warned of the implications for all cell phone and email users.

Other writers provided some historical context: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple looked at a couple of past cases to illustrate the difference made when the government gives prior notice, and also examined the long-term effects of its 2001 seizure of an AP reporter’s records. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, meanwhile, noted how the DOJ has abused its supposedly careful process for record seizure in the past.

Journalists were virtually universally outraged, as The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson chronicled in a pair of posts. The DOJ’s actions were condemned as a violation of the freedom of the press in pieces from journalists and observers ranging from The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, Poynter’s Al Tompkins, Free Press’ Josh Stearns, and Slate’s Emily Bazelon. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as is his wont, placed the seizure in the context of the Obama administration’s ongoing attacks on civil liberties, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sounded a warning to all of us about the privacy of the communication we entrust to third parties.

Marcy Wheeler of Salon broke down the administration’s rationale for the leak investigation, arguing that it was motivated by resentment at the AP for pre-empting a planned announcement, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick concurred that it was driven more by embarrassment than national security concern. Reuters’ Jack Shafer explained why the government may not have been concerned so much about the AP story’s content as the potential damage from its source.


Snooping with Bloomberg terminals: The DOJ’s seizure wasn’t the only snooping story in journalism this week, though journalists were the offender rather than the victim in the other one. The financial news service Bloomberg came under scrutiny with reports that executives from Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase have confronted Bloomberg over reporters’ use of its terminals to track terminal usage by their companies’ employees. Reporters’ access to that information has since been cut off, but the FDIC, Federal Reserve, and Treasury Department are all examining the situation. Not only that, but the Financial Times reported (paywalled; here’s The Verge summarizing it) that thousands of confidential terminal messages had inadvertently been available online for years, though they’ve now been taken down.

A bit of background on Bloomberg’s terminals: They’re everywhere in the financial services industry, and they’re by far the largest share of Bloomberg’s revenue. Their primary purpose is to track financial data and news, but they can also be used to send messages, and its users’ login and customer service data is available to Bloomberg reporters. Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler downplayed what information reporters have access to through the terminals, but noted that they’ve used that data as a feedback to tailor their reporting since the early days of the company.

The Wall Street Journal’s William Launder went into deeper detail on the historical intertwining between journalists and the terminals’ financial data, and Quartz’s Zachary Seward gave a fuller picture of exactly what Bloomberg reporters can see regarding the terminals’ users. BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria reported that a Bloomberg anchor had been disciplined in 2011 for making on-air comments about using terminal data to track a source, and The New York Times’ Amy Chozick reported that Bloomberg reporters did talk about using terminal data to help break news. Nitasha Tiku of Gawker gave some more details about how the terminals were used in reporting and the information Bloomberg reporters store and share about their sources.

Some observers debated about how big of a deal this snooping was. Both Adam Penenberg of PandoDaily and The Daily Beast’s Stuart Stevens compared it negatively to News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal, but the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum and The Guardian’s Heidi Moore noted that reporters couldn’t get that much information from the terminals, and, as Moore argued, were simply mining data for any minute advantage in the same way their clients were.

The most insightful piece on the issue came from Quartz’s Zachary Seward, who wrote that the ability to see customers’ data was an open secret, a feature rather than a bug for a company built on a borderline obsessive culture of external secrecy and internal “transparency.” “Data comes into the company—as much as possible, from wherever possible—but it doesn’t leave because, at Bloomberg, information is money,” Seward wrote.

Former Bloomberg reporter Arik Hesseldahl of All Things D also detailed how deeply ingrained this surveillance is at Bloomberg, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that Bloomberg’s terminal system is essentially a social network, where, like Facebook, users trade their data for the value the network provides. The Washington Post’s Neil Irwin wondered if Bloomberg’s model is ripe for disruption, and The New York Times’ David Carr tied together the DOJ and Bloomberg scandals, noting that spying is more of a two-way street than journalists like to acknowledge.

The struggle over online video: There were a few interesting developments on the online video front worth keeping an eye on this week: ABC announced that it would begin livestreaming its feed through its iPad and iPhone apps to users in the area of some of the local stations it owns. It’s the first time a network has offered any type of live mobile streaming, but it’s not as much of a step forward in accessibility as you might think: It’s only available to cable and satellite subscribers, despite the fact that it’s a free over-the-air signal.

GigaOM’s Janko Roettgers looked more closely at the technology behind live streaming and how it’s cleared the hurdles that have held it back in the past. He noted the ways in which the service contrasts with that of Aereo, the service that lets subscribers access streaming network TV on mobile devices, much to the consternation of media executives. Aereo, meanwhile, has simplified its price structure and is expanding from New York into Boston and Atlanta. CNNMoney’s Julianne Pepitone said despite the moves by ABC and Aereo, live online TV is still a ways off from becoming a reality for most people.

Elsewhere in online video, YouTube debuted its subscription channels last Friday, and as Peter Kafka of All Things D pointed out, it’s almost entirely devoid of both big-media players and YouTube-native stars. The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor questioned whether people will want to pay for what’s offered, and Janko Roettgers of paidContent argued that the key is finding content whose market neatly intersects with YouTube’s.


A new Strongbox for leaks: The New Yorker this week launched Strongbox, a method of securely submitting sensitive information to the magazine, designed by recently deceased digital activist Aaron Swartz and former hacker and Wired editor Kevin Poulsen. It’s a pretty complicated process, involving the anonymity network Tor, encryption, and multiple computers and thumb drives. Poulsen explained Swartz’s role in creating the underlying code for the process, known as DeadDrop.

The most useful analysis of Strongbox comes from Source, where several journalist/developers discussed its advantages and limitations, generally finding it to be a helpful tool that’s nonetheless not silver bullet for security, and which may be too complex for many people to use. You can also see some early optimism about Strongbox’s viability in posts by the Village Voice’s Sydney Brownstone and Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, with Timm calling it the most promising leak submission system since WikiLeaks.

Reading roundup: A few other stories to check out this week:

— Protests against the possible sale of the Tribune Co.’s newspapers to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers continued this week in Los Angeles, with another one planned for Orlando. Tribune Co. CEO Peter Liguori, however, tried to reassure employees that a sale of the papers wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi said stopping the Kochs from buying the papers is something unions should do, while Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon said their potential influence may be overblown.

— Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported on surprising new research finding that 92 percent of the time spent consuming news is on legacy platforms — print, radio, TV — rather than computers or mobile devices. Mathew Ingram of paidContent contested the usefulness of the data in illustrating the current state of media consumption.

— At MediaShift Idea Lab, Brian Moritz gave four lessons for journalism students from his experiences at Syracuse working with the cutting edge of digital technology, such as drones, 3D printers, and immersive virtual reality tools.

— Finally, NYU professor Jay Rosen laid out a blueprint for a networked beat, focusing on how it might work at The Atlantic’s business news site Quartz. He also talked to paidContent’s Mathew Ingram about his ideas for how to rework the beat with the public at the center.

Photo of phone console at AP’s Washington bureau by AP/Jon Elswick. Photo of Bloomberg terminal by Ryan Wang.

POSTED     May 17, 2013, 10:28 a.m.
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